Switching to a Green Mediterranean Diet positively affects brain health, according to new research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Weight loss attenuated brain aging in a sub-study of the DIRECT-PLUS trial.
DIRECT PLUS was a large-scale, long-term clinical trial over 18 months among 300 participants.
The sub-study was conducted by Prof. Galia Avidan of the Department of Psychology and Dr.Gidon Levakov, a former graduate student at the Department of Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
The larger study was led by Prof. Iris Shai of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, an adjunct Professor from the Harvard School of Public Health and an honorary professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany, along with her former graduate student Dr. Alon Kaplan, and colleagues from Harvard and Leipzig Universities.
Obesity is linked with the brain aging faster than would normally be expected. Researchers can capture this process by calculating a person’s ‘brain age’ – how old their brain appears on detailed scans, regardless of chronological age. This approach also helps to check how certain factors, such as lifestyle, can influence brain aging over relatively short time scales.
Fresh insights into the spread of damaging proteins that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease could hold the key to stopping the condition progressing, a study says.
Researchers have discovered that synapses, which send essential signals through the brain, are also transporting toxic proteins known as tau around the brain.
Large clumps of the protein tau – called tangles – form in brain cells and are one of the defining features of Alzheimer’s disease. As these tangles spread through the brain during the disease there is a decline in brain function.
People who have sleep apnea and spend less time in deep sleep may be more likely to have brain biomarkers that have been linked to an increased risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, according to new research published in the May 10, 2023, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study does not prove that these sleep disturbances cause the changes in the brain, or vice versa. It only shows an association.
The study looked at sleep factors and biomarkers of the health of the brain’s white matter. The biomarkers measure how well the brain’s white matter is preserved, which is important to connect different parts of the brain. One of the biomarkers, white matter hyperintensities, are tiny lesions visible on brain scans. White matter hyperintensities become more common with age or with uncontrolled high blood pressure. The other biomarker measures the integrity of the axons, which form the nerve fibers that connect nerve cells.
“These biomarkers are sensitive signs of early cerebrovascular disease,” said study author Diego Z. Carvalho, MD, MS, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Finding that severe sleep apnea and a reduction in slow-wave sleep are associated with these biomarkers is important since there is no treatment for these changes in the brain, so we need to find ways to prevent them from happening or getting worse.”
On the quest for the proverbial fountain of youth, scientists have long looked for evidence of super-agers—people whose brain ages slower than their body. Researchers at the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester have found older adults whose brain performance improves when they combine a cognitive task with walking.
“Identifying super-agers will leverage what we understand about the brain and aging,” said Eleni Patelaki, a Biomedical Engineering PhD student at the University of Rochester Medical Center and first author of the paper in NeuroImage. “But this is difficult to do because, in this case, there was no external evidence of this ability, and people are unaware that their brain is working differently.”
Walking and doing exposes brain flexibility
Researchers had the participants complete the same cognitive task while sitting and while walking. The 37 men and women, ages 62 to 79, scored similarly while sitting. When the same group repeated the test while walking, researchers found some individuals improved their cognitive performance. Researchers used Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) to observe these changes and measure how the brain responded to the dual task. “We think this brain activity might constitute signatures of ‘super-aging,” said Patelaki. “We were able to find seven people, and now that we know where and how to look in the brain to find these super-agers, we can find more.”
The participants whose cognition improved while walking showed that their brain was able to adapt to and improve at the task—it had flexible usage of certain frontal resources. But those same people lost their flexibility in using the rest of their neural resources, similar to their peers who did not improve at the task while walking. This suggests that the brain’s ability to adapt or its flexibility in reallocating neural resources while walking might be an important factor in protecting cognition as we age.
Like the older adults, there was no predictor of who would improve and who would not before being tested. This study was Patelaki’s first clue that the dual-task experiment could find super-agers. Most previous research shows that the more tasks a person has to do concurrently, the worse they perform, especially older individuals.
Developing a map for brain health
Brain flexibility is an indicator of brain health. This research offers a potentially necessary component for tracking the health of an individual’s brain—it found where to look.
“These findings have promise for being translated to clinical populations, such as patients with neurodegenerative diseases,” said Ed Freedman, PhD, associate professor of Neuroscience and senior author of this study. “These markers could be used to assess the degree of disease progression, to evaluate treatment outcomes, and potentially to identify people, pre-clinically, at high risk for developing aging-related or disease-related cognitive decline.”
This past work has found job-related improvements in skills like touch discrimination and emotion regulation. Now a new study finds that a job that challenges a key aspect of cognitive functioning — the updating of information held in working memory — improves this ability too.
Effective updating of the contents of working memory is vital for all kinds of everyday experiences, including having a conversation and reading. It’s also linked to greater academic success. So this new work, led by Xin Zhao at Northwest Normal University, China, and colleagues, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, provides evidence that job choice can affect a fundamentally important aspect of everyday brain function.
In the first of two studies, the team recruited 53 men who worked as restaurant ticket collectors in beef noodle restaurants in China, plus 53 security guards as a control group. (Men typically hold these jobs, they write.)
In people with no thinking and memory problems, a simple test may predict the risk of developing cognitive impairment years later, according to a study published in the April 19, 2023, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
“There is increasing evidence that some people with no thinking and memory problems may actually have very subtle signs of early cognitive impairment,” said study author Ellen Grober, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “In our study, a sensitive and simple memory test predicted the risk of developing cognitive impairment in people who were otherwise considered to have normal cognition.”
The study involved 969 people with an average age of 69 with no thinking or memory problems at the start of the study. They were given a simple memory test and were followed for up to 10 years.
The test includes two phases. For the study phase, people are shown four cards, each with drawings of four items. They are asked to identify the item belonging to a particular category. For example, participants would name the item “grapes” after being asked to identify a “fruit.” For the test phase, participants are first asked to recall the items. This measures their ability to retrieve information. Then, for items they did not remember, they are given category cues. This phase measures memory storage.
The relationship between alcohol use and burn injuries is a negative one in multiple ways. Not only are about 50% of adults who sustain burn injuries intoxicated at the time of injury, suggesting that alcohol use may have contributed to the incident, but alcohol use among burn-injured patients is associated with more severe complications, delayed recovery, and increased morbidity and mortality.
“Return to work or normal life can be impaired or delayed for burn-injured patients who use alcohol,” says Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, vice chair of research and professor of GI, trauma, and endocrine surgery in the University of Colorado Department of Surgery. “Every organ of the body is affected by alcohol because it enters your bloodstream. If you look at the data on alcohol use and injury recovery, it affects everything from the cardiovascular system to the lungs, liver, and pancreas, and even fracture repair.”
That’s primarily because alcohol in the body alters inflammatory responses, she says, making it harder for the immune system to do its job.
“The immune system kills a germ by eating it, like a Pac-Man, and alcohol impairs the ability of that cell to eat the germ,” Kovacs says. “If you get a bacterial infection and your body can’t destroy it, then you’re going to have more bacteria, and things will only get worse.”
Captain of her high school tennis team and a four-year veteran of varsity tennis in college, Amanda Studnicki had been training for this moment for years.
All she had to do now was think small. Like ping pong small.
For weeks, Studnicki, a graduate student at the University of Florida, served and rallied against dozens of players on a table tennis court. Her opponents sported a science-fiction visage, a cap of electrodes streaming off their heads into a backpack as they played against either Studnicki or a ball-serving machine. That cyborg look was vital to Studnicki’s goal: to understand how our brains react to the intense demands of a high-speed sport like table tennis – and what difference a machine opponent makes.
Having a good sense of smell is associated with slower loss of brain volume and cognitive decline in older adults, and the link between sense of smell and brain and cognitive changes may be especially pronounced among those who develop cognitive impairment or dementia. These are the key findings from NIA-led research published recently in Neurology.
The sense of smell declines with age, and loss of olfactory function is also an early symptom of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. While previous research found the sense of smell was associated with brain volume and function, no studies had examined longitudinal changes within an individual across the whole brain and by cognitive status.
In this study, scientists analyzed sense of smell, brain imaging, and cognitive performance data from participants in the NIA Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The researchers examined whether sense of smell, as reflected by odor identification scores, was associated with longitudinal changes in regional brain volumes and changes to cognitive function. To examine the association between sense of smell and brain volume, they compared odor identification scores and brain MRI scans from a subset of 567 participants. The association between sense of smell and cognitive function was analyzed by comparing odor identification scores and cognitive evaluations from a subset of 754 participants. The subsets were analyzed separately but included 565 overlapping participants with both brain MRI scans and cognitive assessment data.
Participants who developed cognitive impairment or dementia had worse odor identification scores than those who did not. Better odor identification scores were associated with slower loss of brain volume, particularly in the frontal and temporal regions — areas important for thinking and memory. Better scores were also associated with slower decline in memory, attention, processing speed, and sensorimotor integration skills over time. However, when data points after a diagnosis of cognitive impairment or dementia were excluded from analysis, the associations between sense of smell with brain volume and cognitive functioning were not as strong.
These study findings add to evidence that sense of smell is related to cognitive impairment and dementia and demonstrate longitudinal relationships with brain volume loss in specific brain areas and cognitive decline in specific domains. Future studies with longer follow-ups of change over time may help researchers better understand the potential for using sense of smell as an early biomarker of cognitive decline and the role of specific brain regions in this association.
A brimming inbox on Monday morning sets your head spinning. You take a moment to breathe and your mind clears enough to survey the emails one by one. This calming effect occurs thanks to a newly discovered brain circuit involving a lesser-known type of brain cell, the astrocyte. According to new research from UC San Francisco, astrocytes tune into and moderate the chatter between overactive neurons.
This new brain circuit, described March 30, 2023 in Nature Neuroscience, plays a role in modulating attention and perception, and may hold a key to treating attention disorders like ADHD that are neither well understood nor well treated, despite an abundance of research on the role of neurons.
Scientists found that noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that can be thought of as adrenaline for the brain, sends one chemical message to neurons to be more alert, while sending another to astrocytes to quiet down the over-active neurons.
“When you’re startled or overwhelmed, there’s so much activity going on in your brain that you can’t take in any more information,” said Kira Poskanzer, PhD, an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics and senior author of the study.
Until this study, it was assumed that brain activity just quieted down with time as the amount of noradrenaline in the brain dissipated.
A new study from a Washington University researcher offers fresh insights into how the brain goes to great lengths to processes and remember everyday events.
Zachariah Reagh, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and co-author Charan Ranganath of the University of California, Davis, used functional MRI scanners to monitor the brains of subjects watching short videos of scenes that could have come from real life. These included men and women working on laptops in a cafe or shopping in a grocery store.
“They were very ordinary scenes,” Reagh said. “No car chases or anything.”
The research subjects then immediately described the scenes with as much detail as they could muster. The mundane snippets led to intriguing findings, including that different parts of the brain worked together to understand and remember a situation.
Networks in the front part of the temporal lobe, a region of the brain long known to play an important role in memory, focused on the subject regardless of their surroundings. But the posterior medial network, which involves the parietal lobe toward the back of the brain, paid more attention to the environment. Those networks then sent information to the hippocampus, Reagh explained, which combined the signals to create a cohesive scene.
Scientists from the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI) have shed new light on aging processes in the brain. By linking the increased presence of specialized immune cells to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury for the first time, they have unearthed a possible new target for therapies aimed at treating age-related neurological diseases.
The research, which benefited from a collaboration with experts at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and focused on microglia in the brain and spinal cord, is published in leading international journal, Science Advances.
Microglia are a unique type of immune cell whose job it is to support nerve cells, defend against invading microbes, clear debris and remove dying nerve cells by engulfing and eating them. Emerging research indicates that microglia can have different functional responses depending on molecular and biochemical changes occurring within these specialized cells.
In fact, various subtypes of microglia can be distinguished based on a property called autofluorescence. This is the tendency of cells to emit light of one color after they have absorbed light of another, and it occurs because specific substances inside the cells absorb light. The substances stored in specialized cellular compartments include fat molecules, cholesterol crystals, metals and other misfolded proteins.
The study, “Lipids uniquely alter the secondary structure and toxicity of amyloid beta 1-42 aggregates,” by Dmitry Kurouski, Ph.D., and research assistants Kiryl Zhaliazka and Mikhail Matyeyenka, was supported by a $1.5 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award from the National Institutes of Health. It was published in FEBS Journal — the journal of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies.
“The study found that certain lipids can increase the toxicity of amyloid beta peptides, which are thought to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Kurouski, an assistant professor and primary investigator for the study, Bryan-College Station. “Specifically, we discovered that the interaction between amyloid beta and lipids can cause the formation of small, toxic clusters called oligomers.”
Researchers have discovered how a molecule found in green tea breaks apart tangles of the protein tau, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Based on this finding, the team identified other molecules that can also untangle tau and may be better drug candidates than the green tea molecule. Results from the NIA-funded study, published in Nature Communications, suggest that this approach may one day provide an effective strategy for treating Alzheimer’s.
In Alzheimer’s, tau abnormally sticks together in fibrous tangles that spread between brain cells, leading to cell death. The molecule epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) — the one found in green tea — is known to untangle these tau fibers. However, EGCG is not on its own an effective Alzheimer’s treatment because it cannot easily penetrate the brain and binds to many proteins other than tau, weakening its effect. Therefore, researchers wanted to find molecules that replicate the effects of EGCG but have better drug properties for treating Alzheimer’s.
Researchers from the University College London (UCL) Cancer Institute have provided important molecular understanding of how injury may contribute to the development of a relatively rare but often aggressive form of brain tumour called a glioma.
Previous studies have suggested a possible link between head injury and increased rates of brain tumors, but the evidence is inconclusive. The UCL team have now identified a possible mechanism to explain this link, implicating genetic mutations acting in concert with brain tissue inflammation to change the behavior of cells, making them more likely to become cancerous. Although this study was largely carried out in mice, it suggests that it would be important to explore the relevance of these findings to human gliomas.
The study was led by Professor Simona Parrinello (UCL Cancer Institute), Head of the Samantha Dickson Brain Cancer Unit and co-lead of the Cancer Research UK Brain Tumour Centre of Excellence. She said: “Our research suggests that a brain trauma may contribute to an increased risk of developing brain cancer in later life.”
Gliomas are brain tumors that often arise in neural stem cells. More mature types of brain cells, such as astrocytes, have been considered less likely to give rise to tumors. However, recent findings have demonstrated that after injury astrocytes can exhibit stem cell behavior again.
If you’re worried that drinking alcohol could raise the risk of dementia as you get older, a large new study from South Korea can provide some insights. That starts with the idea that in general, cutting down on alcohol is a good idea.
“Maintaining mild to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a decreased risk of dementia, whereas heavier drinking increases the risk of dementia,” the study’s first author, Dr. Keun Hye Jeon, told NPR.
One part of the study’s conclusions seems to have surprised many people: It found that while dropping from heavy to moderate alcohol consumption lowered the risk of dementia, so did the “initiation of mild drinking.”
Study sees a complex interaction of alcohol and health
“Those who drink alcohol within the recommended guidelines are not advised to stop on the grounds of reducing the risk of dementia,” Jeon said, “although cutting back on alcohol consumption may bring other health benefits.”
Compared to people who didn’t change their alcohol habits, Jeon and her colleagues found that two groups showed a heightened risk of dementia: drinkers who increased their consumption, and people who quit altogether.
“Quitters from any level of alcohol consumption showed higher risk of all-cause dementia compared with those who sustained the same level of drinking,” according to the research paper.
Much has been made of that aspect of the findings, as people try to parse whether it might represent a true cause and effect — and a possible new data point in their own decisions about drinking. But the researchers warn that the higher dementia risks of people who quit drinking in their study “are suspected to be primarily attributed to the sick quitter effect, which is defined as a person quitting (or reducing) a certain hazardous activity because of health issues.”
In other words, they may have quit drinking because their health worsened, rather than their health worsening because they quit drinking.
So, what can drinkers do to limit their risk of dementia?